10/18/2012 02:44 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Hedgefunders Part 3: The Colleversity

Here's the nightmare. The hundreds of fine small colleges dotting the nation without the famous names of Williams or Wesleyan all fail. After a few more decades of appearing to a near-sighted public of costing far too much for too little practical advantage, they no longer can make ends meet. They simply vaporize or provide something less humane than the often superlative education they now offer. Large public universities suffer in their own way, affording students deadly impersonal instruction, a fake education, as the result of a disastrous combination -- more students and continuously decreasing state support.

The big universities come to resemble the Superdome during Katrina. The smaller colleges compete with each other more and more recklessly, buidling exclusive facilities, spending too much on fundraising and admissions and air-conditioned gyms and not enough on instruction until they compete each other into bancruptcy.

In such a scenario, students, robbed of their potential, are the penultimate victims, while the health of the republic is the ultimate victim for the same reason.

It is not so easy to avoid this nightmare from becoming a waking horror. As we noted in the first two blogs of this series, those seeking blindly to reinvent the university as a mere function of careerism and the new tech and those seeking blindly to restore the not-so-good old days of a privileged irrelevance together constitute Matthew Arnold's "ignorant armies" that "clash by night." And by that, America's cherished advantage in higher education disappears before dawn.

Here's the dream of that new dawn as a joyful alternative. Imagine a campus that provides the personal-attention intimacy of a fine small college and the ranging opportunities of a large research university, combining the best of both -- hence The Colleversity, intimate and expansive at once.

A few such now exist: some of the Ivies come to mind. By this transformation, every student gets to attend such a place, or better.

The dream is ours for the asking and doing. Last week I cited the new technology as one means for occasionally supplementing face-to-face courses to create a richer curriculum beyond the physical limits of each campus. (Such courses, never the majority, could easily feature a networked prof who travelled, visiting each participating campus a few times in a semester.) But that is just one form of the collaboration that must replace the petty competitions of the present among colleges and universities. We must move from an era of demeaning competition to an era of enlightened collaboration.

Small schools can follow the example of Bryn Mawr, Haverford, and Swarthmore, or the four schools adjacent to Holyoke, to allow students common access. But that is the merest beginning. At present, each kind of college or university tends only to meet with and compete with other institutions like itself. We need to mix and match, to have the neighboring community college, liberal arts college, and big university begin extensive and continuing talks toward mutual benefit -- everything from purchasing health benefits and material goods in common to sharing courses, faculty and staff personnel, facilities -- even, and most important, students.

Next, vertical integration: No other nation suffers such a divide between public (K-12) and higher education systems. Across the board, we need to be thinking K-16 or even K-20. As just one instance, who can provide a first-year college writing course as well as an excellent high-school teacher? First-year college students were high-school seniors, after all, just three months ago. And wouldn't that teacher find her or his career enriched by more frequent visits to the local campus with its busy intellectual life?

Once we remove the sludge of separation and get that river flowing, we can traverse the boundaries of education itself, to create ties to all the social sectors -- government, non-profits, business. Let the mentors and the consumers, those who teach students and those who will hire them -- begin a dialogue. I attended one such meeting some years ago at the University of Washington and the conversations were far more dynamic than the usual talk in the faculty lunchroom.

Next, apply collaboration to academic facilities. Some of the sciences are loss-leaders, and the tension between the high importance of some fields and the low student market for some, say physics, becomes another administrative nightmare. It is one of those unthinkable-not-to and unaffordable-to moments.

Skype-style instruction, as we discussed in relation to language study, is one answer, but the problem here extends to physical spaces, namely laboratories, essential to the kind of do-it experiences on which science learning depends. Small colleges now typically spend up to $100 million for a science facility. But what if three schools banded together? Or, alternately, two colleges and an engineeering firm? A college and a research hospital?

This era of collaboration will be terribly difficult to develop. Discovering mutual benefit is a complex process that sometimes will result in failure. Creating lasting alliances that are not vulnerable to changes in personal leadership will be another challenge. Faculty recalcitrance and the student's desire to remain totally on campus will need to be overcome. But the benefits --not only the survival of the most varied landscape of higher education in the world but also the social potential of an unprecedented confluence between advanced learning and everyday life -- make the persistence required not just worthwhile but crucial and essential.

To get our colleges and universities beyond the gated-community syndrome may require incentives not only from foundations but from government, and that will be controversial. But it is difficult to imagine a better-leveraging investment. We can make every single academic institution far better and less costly for our students and their parents by adhering to what we all were urged to do by our preschool teachers: Share, children, share.